Wisconsin commits to Paris climate accords

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes joined a call with experts and city leaders ahead of UN COP25

Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes make a pitch to get Wisconsinites signed up for healthcare in Milwaukee.
Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes make a pitch to get Wisconsinites signed up for healthcare in Milwaukee.

Despite President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, cities and states are moving to reaffirm their commitment to the accord. With the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 25 set to start Dec. 2, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes joined other city and state leaders on a call last week to discuss how Americans can move forward without the federal government. UN Climate Change Conference COP 25

“The U.S. leaders taking actions for the accord represent nearly 70% of the U.S. GDP,” said Barnes during the call, “and nearly two-thirds of the US population.” Barnes affirmed that, “regardless of if we have the support of our nation’s highest office or not, this work is going to get done.”

Several cities, towns and tribal communities in Wisconsin have already moved climate adaptation and mitigation to the top of their to-do-lists. A recently established state-level climate task force will make recommendations for Wisconsin’s climate policies by next fall. Milwaukee started its own task force, and is one example of city-level climate initiatives. “Countless cities and tribal communities have set ambitious goals,” said Barnes. “They’re working to transition their local economies to ones that are clean, just and equitable. And we are there to support them.”

He also referred to promises Gov. Tony Evers made the night they were elected that, “Science is coming back to the state of Wisconsin.”

“For eight long years,” Evers said, in Wisconsin “we dealt with what we’re seeing now in the nation’s highest office. We were governed by officials who shared the same ideologies that our president does. They neglected the health and well-being of their citizens, and they rejected the policies that would protect our environment. Those days are fortunately over.”

As part of the Evers administration’s climate agenda, Wisconsin joined the US climate alliance. “We vowed to uphold the Paris climate agreement,” said Barnes. “As states we have the authority to take action. We have a unique opportunity, and that action is well underway in Wisconsin. And it’s also well underway across the Midwest.”

Carla Frisch of the Rock Mountain Institute, who was also on the call, pointed to a critical detail of the Paris accords. “The way the Paris agreement was designed was for each country to bring their own commitment to the table,” she said, “and to grow that ambition and further those commitments over time.” In light of this reality, Frisch said that the international community is increasingly questioning U.S. ambition and commitment.

“At the COP, we’ll be releasing a new analysis from America’s pledge that takes this ambition question head-on,” she revealed. Many countries are setting their own targets for 2030, which Frisch described as “a pivotal year.” This analysis of the sub-national coalition of American cities and states will focus on, “what can they do by 2030.” It also will examine the possibility of a new administration that wishes to re-engage with the Paris accords. “We’re really looking forward to sharing the results of that analysis with you all,” said Frisch, “and with all the global negotiators.”

Elian Strait, of the U.S. Climate Action Center, noted that member states in this new climate alliance are, “market drivers for carbon-intensive industry.” Strait, who served as White House director of climate and clean energy under the Obama Administration, wonders if commitments made by states, cities and businesses with the largest carbon footprints will “shift the market enough that you pass that tipping point, and the rest of the economy follows.”

The question of what role industry plays in sub-national climate commitments also encompasses the energy companies. Wisconsin’s energy grid, for example, is maintained by We Energies, worth over $7 billion. During the first meeting of Milwaukee’s climate task force, the company’s role as a gatekeeper of energy policy came up. Sustainability Director Erick Shambarger of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office explained the company’s  influence.

In 2017, Milwaukee began envisioning ways to transition the amount of wind and solar power it uses from kilowatts to megawatts. One megawatt is equal to 1000 kilowatts. The city sought a megawatt solar program utilizing six city buildings, which would be partly funded by a third-party energy provider to ease the financial burden.

“The financing structure had already been used in other parts of Wisconsin,” said Shambarger, who added that the city felt the plan complied with regulations, “though we know the utility, We Energies, doesn’t like these kinds of arrangements.” A contract negotiated with Iowa-based contractor Eagle Point Solar for the project was killed by We Energies.

Wisconsin energy regulations dictate that all solar power sources must be inter-connected by the state utility. “Ultimately, We Energies refused to inner-connect,” Shambarger told the members of Milwaukee’s climate and equity task force. “They said our partner was illegally acting as a public utility by selling power. So that got stopped.” Decades-old regulations in Wisconsin places We Energies at the helm of a natural monopoly in the state.

Frisch said that some state utility companies are stepping up their commitments to transitioning to clean energy, thanks to the efforts of  state and city leaders. “As with any trend we see the leaders coming forward, and then we’ll slowly start to see the market shift behind those leaders,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “When we talk to these companies, they’re making this decision for many reasons, but a big part of that is the economics of clean energy. The cost of solar and wind have drastically come down over the past decade. So when they’re looking at, ‘okay, how can we provide clean energy and also get our bottom line,’ they’re seeing that renewables are really the best option there. I think other companies who are not quite there yet are starting to see that trend.”

While We Energies will have a place on the state-level task force, Milwaukee’s group is uncertain how the company will factor in going forward given the city’s prior experiences with the energy provider.

“I think it’ll be up to them,” Milwaukee County supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde told Wisconsin Examiner after the task force meeting. “I think that we as the constituency, and we as the residents of this city and this state, move forward in changing our relationship with our energy, I think they need to come along with that.” While he hopes that it will be possible to bring We Energies to the table, Omokunde affirmed that Milwaukee’s task force, “will not settle for anything less than what we need to be doing.”

Companies maintaining natural monopolies over state power grids can also hamper carbon tracking. In Wisconsin, We Energies does not collect or release data on city-level carbon emissions even to city officials. Shambarger mentioned during the Milwaukee task force meeting that the city has been unsuccessful in trying to obtain this data from We Energies.

“I do think cities should track their carbon emissions,” Lt. Gov. Barnes told Wisconsin Examiner. “If nothing else from a public health standpoint, it’s another area that has had tremendous impact on people’s health and safety, but has largely been ignored. And as we begin to learn more as science continues to advance, I think that it’s ever more important to track carbon emissions.”

Frisch added that a big benefit in the alliance among cities and states is that, “they’re sharing lessons learned.” She explains that tracking emissions is important for individual cities, but sharing data helps municipalities learn new methods of cutting those emissions. “There is a lot of opportunity for those [cities] that are struggling to get help from those that are leading.”

The UN COP25 will be held December 2-13, 2019 in Madrid, Spain, with the support of the government of Spain. Wisconsin will join 24 other states, and over 1,000 mayors and tribal governments from across the country in reaffirming commitment to the Paris climate agreement.